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The Story of England by  Samuel B. Harding


 

 

EDWARD III. AND THE HUNDRED YEARS' WAR


[120] EDWARD III. reigned for fifty years—from 1327 to 1377. During the first four years, the government was in the hands of those who had deposed Edward II.; but when Edward III. was eighteen years old, he took the power into his own hands. He was handsome, brave, and energetic. In the greater part of his reign, the people gladly supported him, for the wars which he carried on were popular, and he let Parliament have much power. But, in his old age, he grew selfish and extravagant, and troubles arose.

[121] The most important thing in the reign of Edward III. was the beginning of a long war—or rather a series of wars—with France. We call this the Hundred Years' War, because it lasted for more than a century, from 1327 to 1453.

Many causes combined to produce this long war. The English Kings could not forget that they had once held Normandy, and no King of France could be content so long as another King was his vassal for so large a part of the kingdom as the English King still held in Gascony. When Edward III. renewed the English war with Scotland, the French King aided the Scots; and when troubles broke out in Flanders, in northern France, Edward III. supported the Flemish people against their count, who was supported by his overlord, the King of France. In this last quarrel, the English people were strongly on the side of their King; for the industrious cloth manufacturers of the Flemish cities were the chief customers for England's wool.

When war had been decided upon, Edward III. made matters worse by claiming that he was the rightful King of France. His mother was the sister of the last preceding French King; and when this King died without sons, Edward said that the French crown should have gone to him, as that King's nephew. But the French had a rule that no woman  could reign over France, and they decided (as they had a perfect right to do) that this also shut out those who claimed through  a woman, as Edward did. They therefore had given the crown to the nearest male member of their royal house, whose right came entirely through males. Even when the Hundred Years' War finally ended, the English Kings did not cease styling themselves "Kings of France"; and it was not until [122] the beginning of the nineteenth century that this claim was finally abandoned.

Two very famous battles—the battle of Crecy and Poitiers—were fought in this war, while Edward III. was King; and later, as we shall see, a third battle—that of Agincourt—was fought by Henry V. In all three of these battles, the victory was chiefly due to the strength and skill of the English archers, with their "long bows" and "cloth-yard shafts," which could shoot true for two hundred yards, and pierce through coats of mail.

The battle of Crecy was fought in northern France, in 1346. Edward III. had landed in Normandy, and marched up the valley of the river Seine, until the flames of the villages burned by the English could be seen from the walls of Paris. Then he turned northward, with the French in hot pursuit. He awaited their attack on a little hill at Crecy. The French force was five times as great as that of the English, and included a body of hired crossbowmen from Italy.

The crossbowmen were no match for the English longbowmen. The English arrows fell among them "so thick that it seemed as if it snowed," and they broke ranks and fled.

"Slay these rascals," angrily cried the French King, pointing to the crossbowmen, "for they trouble us without reason."


[Illustration]

Battle of Crecy

"But ever still," says the chronicler Froissart, who wrote about these wars, "the Englishmen shot wherever the crowd was thickest. The sharp arrows pierced the knights, and their horses, and many fell, both horse and men; and when they were down they could not rise again, for the press was so thick that one overthrew another."

[123] Edward III. had given the command of one division of his knights (who fought on foot in this battle) to his sixteen year old son, Edward the Black Prince. The King himself guided the whole battle from the tower of a little windmill on the battle field. Presently a messenger came to him in haste, and said:

"Sire, those about the Prince are fiercely fought and sore handled, wherefore they desire that you and your division come and aid them."

"Is my son dead, or hurt, or felled to earth?" inquired the King.

"No, sire," replied the messenger, "but he is overmatched, and has need of your aid."

[124] "Well," said the King, "return to them that sent you, and say to them that they need send no more to me, no matter what happens, as long as my son is alive. And also say to them that I wish that they let him this day win his spurs. For if God be pleased, I will that this day be his, and the honor thereof."

Night came, with the English lines still unbroken, while the French were in hopeless confusion. The French King fled wounded from the field, leaving behind him eleven princes of France among the slain, and thousands of lesser rank. It was one of the greatest victories in English history, and it was won by despised foot-soldiers, of low rank, against the nobly born nights of France.

The only profit which the English took from their victory was to capture the city of Calais, just across the Straits from Dover. The French inhabitants were driven out, and English settlers took their places. The possession of this city gave England a convenient entrance into France, and for more than two hundred years it remained in their hands.

While Edward was fighting in France, the Scots sought to aid the French by invading England. Edward's Queen, Philippa,, gathered an army which defeated and captured the Scottish King, at Neville's Cross. A song-writer of that time tells how the Scottish King—

"Brought many bagmen,

Ready bent was their bow,

They robbed and they ravaged

And naught they let go.


"But shamed were the knaves

And sad must they feel,

For at Neville's Cross

Needs must they kneel."

[125] The battle of Poitiers was fought ten years later (1356) in southern France. The Black Prince had started to march northward into Normandy, but was met by an army many times larger than his own. He offered to surrender the booty he had taken, and his prisoners, and to bind himself not to fight again for seven years, if the French would let him retreat; but they refused. The English force was made up chiefly of archers, as at Crecy. The French, who were mostly armored knights, fought on foot, thinking it was the dismounted knights of the English who had won the day at Crecy. The English were stationed on a little plateau, protected by a hedge and by some rough and marshy ground.

The English archers did their work so well, that the first and second divisions of the French broke ranks and fled, before they came within striking distance of the [126] English. Then the third division advanced, under the command of the French King himself.


[Illustration]

Battle of Poitiers

"Then was there a sore fight," say the chronicler Froissart, "and many a great stroke was given and received. The French King, with his own hands, did marvels in arms; he had a battle-ax in his hands, wherewith he defended himself, and fought in the thickest of the press."

But it was in vain. The third division of the French at last fled; and the King and his youngest son, refusing to flee, were taken captives by the English Prince. The whole English army was made rich by the gold, silver, and jewels which they took.

"That day," says Froissart, "whoever took any prisoner, he was clear his, and he might let him go or ransom him as he chose."

The French King was kept captive for four years, though he was entertained with great festivities. In 1360 he signed a peace (called the Peace of Bretigny) by which he agreed to pay an enormous ransom, and give up his rights as King over Gascony. In return, Edward III. agreed to give up his claim to the French throne.

This treaty was never fully carried out, and war began again nine years later. Edward III. was now feeble and worn-out, and the Black Prince was suffering from a disease which carried him off a year before his father finally died. On the other hand, an able and energetic King now sat on the French throne, who fought no useless battles, but bit by bit conquered the lands of the English. When Edward III. died, in 1377, Calais, and a very small part of Gascony, were all that remained of his once extensive possessions in France.


[Illustration]

The Black Prince

[127] For a time, the English people had profited from the French war. Almost every household could show some spoil—a featherbed, rich clothes, fine weapons—won by the bravery of husband, brothers, or sons. But soon heavy taxes had to be laid to provide for the expenses of the war. Worst of all, in the midst of this prosperity came a great pestilence, called the Black Death—the worst sickness that England ever knew.

The Black Death was a form of that disease called the "bubonic plague," which is still common in Asia. This attack started in China, and made its way slowly along the caravan routes of Asia, until it reached the Black Sea. It was carried by ships of Italian traders to the cities of Italy, and thence to France. It appeared in France two years after the battle of Crecy, and soon passed over into England. Germany, Norway, and Russia all suffered from it. It was the scourge of the civilized world.

We know that the "plague" is carried by a certain kind of fleas, which live on rats; and it is probable that the fleas and rats came in the bundles of merchandise which caravans and ships brought and [128] spread throughout Europe. The disease spread from country to country, from city to city, from village to village, from house to house.

When it once appeared in a house, all of the inhabitants were almost sure to be attacked by it. Even pigs, sheep, and other animals died from its effects. It showed itself by the appearance of dark blotches and boils on the body, from which we give it its name—"the Black Death." Persons seized by it in the morning were often dead by night. Few recovered who were once attacked by it.

The number of persons who died is difficult to estimate. In some places almost all of the people perished; in England as a whole fully one-half were swept away. Probably one-third of the population of all Europe died from it. A monk described its ravages in France in these words:

"It is impossible to believe the number who have died throughout the whole country. Travelers, merchants, pilgrims, declare that they have found cattle wondering without herdsmen in fields, towns and waste lands. They have seen barns and wine-cellars standing wide open, houses empty, and few people to be found anywhere. In many towns where there were before 20,000 people, scarcely 2,000 are left. In many places the fields lie uncultivated."

Often there were left no priests to console the dying. The dead were buried hastily, great numbers at a time, in long ditches dug in the fields—for the cemeteries were filled to overflowing.

Try to think, for a moment, what all this meant to the countries concerned. The disease soon passed away, except for a few milder reappearances. But the effects of its ravages remained for centuries.

[129] In England, before the Black Death, there were about four or five millions of people. When it had passed away, there were about half this number, and it was long before the number of inhabitants again rose as high as three million.

Field laborers became scarce, and those who were left demanded increased wages. Many "villains" left the estates of their masters, and fled to the towns, or found places elsewhere where their lot was easier. Parliament passed laws to keep wages and prices at their old level, but these could not be enforced. The old system of labor and agriculture broke down, and a new one gradually took its place. In part the change was a benefit to the laborers, by enabling them in the end to better their condition; but at all events it was a revolution in the organization of society.



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